The History of Herbal Medicine

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A brief rundown of the history of herbal remedies and the herbalist practice from ancient times to the modern application of herbal medicines.

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This is a very abridged version of a very long history. I have focused primarily on that part of the history that lead to the modern herbal medicines of today and have glossed over the history of other modalities like Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda. For those interested in the history of these, other modalities, they are covered in the information pages of that modality, easily reached by using the left navigation bar on this page.

As far as I can determine the earliest recordings of herbal healing (using particular plants to heal) dates back to more than 5,000 years ago. The oldest Ayurvedic and Ancient Chinese Medicine recordings are around 5,000 years ago and archaeological discoveries of the Iceman (some 5,500 years old) in the Italian Alps found evidence that he was using a fungal vermifuge.

That, however, does not mean that 5,000 years, or so, ago was the start of using herbs for healing purposes, it only means that records were being kept that far back. It is likely that the practice of using herbs for healing goes back to the beginnings of homeo sapiens.

It is hard to imagine how some of these remedies were discovered but I guess that it was very much a case of trial and error with, often, dire consequences. Discovering the ability of Willow bark to cure headaches and fevers was one thing but Belladonna may have been growing right next to the Willow tree and it is a lot simpler to try a succulent sprig of Belladonna as opposed to wrestling off a slab of bark and then chewing on it.

This process of trial and error must have continued for thousands of years without any real transfer of knowledge as the clans of the cave men were small and mostly hostile to another clan so it is unlikely that information or knowledge was shared.

I am sure that over the thousands of years knowledge of the very deadly plants as well as the more common beneficial plants did manage to get passed down from generation to generation, building up a knowledge base of herbal medicines which eventually formed the base of the early recordings.

Ever since man could write there must have been records of healing herbs as these are prominent in the oldest records of virtually every culture. In china the writings about using plants (amongst other things) in healing dates back some 5,000 years. The earliest Ayurvedic records are 4,500 years old. A scroll was found in an Egyptian tomb that details close to 1,000 herbal remedies (interestingly more than 500 of those like fennel, garlic and chamomile are still in use today).

Herbal medicine did not always dominate. There were times that other modalities were adopted like in the early Greek Empire when it was believed that illness was a curse of the gods and it is only prayer to Apollo that will heal. Apollo had a son Aesculapius who in turn had two daughters Hygeia (the origin of hygiene) who was the goddess of healthy , clean, living and Panacea (origin of the word panacea) who cured illnesses. Aesculapius and his two daughters become the gods that the ill focused on bringing both the cure of disease and prevention of disease by cleaner living.

The god Aesculapius held snakes to be sacred and they were allowed free reign of his temples. They even became part of the healing process. A snake licking a patients wounds was a sign from the gods that healing will happen. Even today the snake feature on the caduceus (the symbol of medicine) wrapped around the staff.

Aesculapian temples sprung up everywhere. Priests would treat patients by bathing, massaging, exercising, fasting praying and preaching to them (or counseling). These rituals always included an animal sacrifice to Aesculapius. Ignoring the snakes and sacrifices i would imagine it to be similar to our modern day-spas.

Hippocrates (460 B.C.) was born to an Aesculapian priest on Kos, an island off Turkey, and although he was trained in the Aesculapian discipline, which was passed down from father to son, he soon rebelled. He believed that disease had nothing to do with the gods but was a factor of environment, weather and diet.

Although it must have been a dramatic and even traumatic diversion from the belief and practice of his family and in particular his father, at the time is was not a radically new idea as Kos was not that far from Egypt where herbal medicine and dietary self care was in full swing.

Hippocrates, however, extended the Egyptian practices much further. He introduced patient examination and argued that the four humors of the body (the four fluids of the body) phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile controlled the health of the body. If they are in balance the body is healthy, if not the body is not healthy and close examination will reveal the imbalance.

Hippocrates must have been a convincing and compelling teacher as his beliefs spread into the Aesculapian priesthood who adopted his version of diagnoses and herbal treatment. Although Hippocrates never wrote, his students compiled "Corpus Hippocraticum", in 72 volumes that covered more than 300 herbs. Interestingly enough, again the herbs included many of the herbs that are in high regard today.

In Rome, five hundred years later, Dioscorides wrote "De Materia Medica" in which he detailed the medicinal value of over 500 plants (again, including most of the favorites that are in use today) which became Europe's first Herbal Pharmacopoeia.

The Roman empire did not always use herbs for the good of mankind. They used the poisonous herbs quite freely to engineer the desired political outcome. Rulers throughout Rome became obsessed with poison and antidotes, bringing us many of the most virulent poisons in use today.

After the demise of the Roman Empire the Arabians took over as the leading physicians. their area of expertise focused more on the pharmacy side of the business becoming famous alchemists and botanists. Their contribution to herbalists is often overlooked.

In Europe medicine was dominated by the Catholic church who believed that illness was a punishment from God (that is what I call progress - back to the same beliefs of the Greek empire). Not all monastic orders adopted the belief in full. The Benedictines for example, maintained their herbal practices, modified and added to by the knowledge gleaned from the Arabian alchemists in particular the making of tinctures which they combined with their wine making skills to bring us the early liqueurs (one still called Benedictine). 

This was followed by the witch-hunt eras of the fourteenth to deep into seventeenth century. Although herbalism was still practiced by men, women were burnt at the stake for it.

The modern herbalists probably trace back to the days of the invention of the printing press. Initially herbalism was suppressed by Henry the eighth in response to a plea by the university trained physicians that feared that the whole industry will go to the herbalists but, as part of the new law that was passed was fluency in reading, speaking and writing Latin it allowed very few to practice medicine and the corresponding shortage of healers made him rescind in 1543.

Less than a decade later William Turner published his "New Herbal" but it was the publication of Nicholas Culpepper's Complete Herbal and English Physician, first printed in 1652, that certainly made the biggest impact on herbal literature. It is still in print today and has been reprinted in over a hundred editions. He became the most influential herbalist of his time and has hardly been surpassed since.

Culpepper was hated as much as he was loved, despised as much as he was admired. He was arrogant and controversial but was committed to bringing herbalism, and the associated healing, to the common man. It was this drive to help the poor that was responsible for the wide acceptance of his book.

Today he is criticized for his obsession with astrology (ascribing much of the healing power of the herbs to the planets that owned and guided their growth and development) and the irrelevancy of it but at the time astrology was a science taught at virtually every university. Even then Culpepper could not resist attacking the professionalism of astrologists which did not enamor him with them either.

Although seen as one of the major players in herbalism, his approach that every herb is a panacea for virtually every ailment or condition, has not only rendered much of his work useless but it is also responsible for a lot of the "one herb cures all" misinformation that has done so much damage to herbalism in the last century. Many of our modern publications on herbs not only quote Culpepper with pride but repeat much, or all, of his exaggerations of efficacy as fact. This level of misinformation will continue to hurt herbalism as it develops into a science.

Without Culpepper herbalism would certainly not enjoy the general acceptance that it has today. He should be admired for his contribution to the promotion of herbalism and his work and words on remedies should be ignored, if not discounted, for the belief and understanding that he had at the time.

Early in the 19th century scientists discovered how to extract drugs from plants. This ability to extract and use a specific constituent, started by extracting morphine from opium (the latex harvested from the opium poppy), meant that it was possible to narrow the effect and side effect of a remedy. This ability to focus was seen as a major breakthrough and modern pharmacology was on its way!

At the same time academic focus shifted towards the larger German inspired style of physician training that was rapidly discounting botany and heralding the virtues of pharmacology. In less than thirty years the emphasis moved completely and herbalists were a dying breed.

Herbal healing went back to its roots and became traditional folk medicine again. It was practiced mostly in remote areas where the population was too small to justify a "modern" doctor (who needed to stay in the more populous areas to recover the huge cost of education).

It was a difficult time for herbalists. In the US it was illegal for herbalists to practice without a university degree in medicine recognized by the American Medical Association.  In Europe the laws were not that strict but pharmacology was seen as the new medical frontier and herbalism came a very poor second.

It is only after the second world war that a resurgence started happening in Europe and America. People became more educated and more aware of what and how health is affected and started realizing that prevention may be better than cure.

Today many recognize that herbal based medicine, managed properly, can play a major role in the achievement of health. We are slowly demystifying herbal medicines by explaining why and how they work by attributing properties to constituents relying on fact rather than vague anecdotal claims.

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